Turf Design Build Magazine Magazine - June, 2009


Building Backyard Waterfalls

Let the H2O flow
By Patrick White
Photos Courtesy of Cipriano Landscape Design
Cipriano Landscape Design's backyard waterfalls, including this award-winning installation, are often extravagant. The right combination of stone and plant materials is critical says Chris Cipriano.
Even on smaller scale projects, it's important to build up the area around the waterfall to ensure a natural look. “We want to watch to be sure we're creating something that looks natural rather than just a pile of rocks on the end of a pool or pond,” says Chris Cipriano.

When homeowners see a spectacular backyard waterfall, they’re likely to notice the water first, and how it cascades downward in mesmerizing fashion. When Chris Cipriano, Cipriano Landscape Design (www.plantnj.com) sees a waterfall, he looks past the water to something he says is even more important: safety.

“Safety is the most important thing. No matter how spectacular a waterfall might look, you don’t want to take a chance with someone’s life,” he says.

The New Jersey-based company generally has one or two waterfalls under construction at any given time, year-round. “We do a lot of them,” says Cipriano. “It’s been a large part of what we’ve done for the past five years or so.”

Cipriano Landscape Design, which has been installing swimming pools, formal fountains, waterfalls and other water features for about a decade, specializes in waterfalls that are far from ordinary. One of its particularly grand waterfall projects was honored with the Northeast Pool & Spa Association’s 2007 Best in Competition award, as well as a silver medal in the Association of Pool & Spa Professional’s International Awards of Excellence. The firm also won 11 awards for its water features and landscaping in 2008.

This success takes teamwork, starting with a safe design. Cipriano Landscape has a certified building professional on staff who has been credentialed by the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (www.apsp.org). “This way, we’re very confident that we’re building the safest possible water features,” Cipriano says. “They get quite large and extravagant, and we’re moving a lot of water, so it’s important to be safe.”

To further ensure safety and durability, all Cipriano Design water features include an engineered concrete foundation. “When we do a waterfall with a pool, it’s done as a ‘uni-pour’ so that everything is recycled in the pool shell to ensure that no water is lost,” says Cipriano. “Some people just put stone right on the soil or sand shelf, but we don’t believe in that. We want to be sure we have a structure.” Once the concrete foundation is in place, the stones are also assembled and mortared into place. “Some of them are pinned. Depending on the stones, we might use a cabling system. We do a lot of different things to ensure that we have a safe-set stone that will never break away or fall into the pool.”

Given the size of its typical projects, Cipriano Landscape Design typically uses full-size excavators and wheel loaders to move and place the stones. In some cases, a crane is also used. “Anytime the stones weigh more than 5 tons, we’re using the larger equipment. You need a lot of equipment to manage these types of projects,” he says.

The company’s waterfall installations (not including other landscaping or water feature components) start around $7,000 and go up from there. “We’ve done waterfalls that are over $200,000,” says Cipriano. What differentiates waterfalls within this wide price range? “The engineering involved, size and stone pricing are big factors. Stone pricing can fluctuate 200 percent, depending upon the type of stone the customer chooses,” he says. Then there are issues like ease of access to the site; if a site is harder to get at, it takes more time to build the waterfall, resulting in a higher cost.

All of the waterfalls the company has completed have been in conjunction with a pool, fountain or some other water feature. That means there’s a lot of water to move. “Generally, we’re running anywhere from 120 to 400 gallons per minute,” says Cipriano. “That means we usually start with a 3 hp pump, and, depending on the size of the waterfall, go up to a 5 hp pump.” The company currently has two projects under construction that each require three 5 hp pumps. “They’re quite large. We’re moving 1,350 gallons per minute on those waterfalls,” he says.

Keith Steinhoff, Cipriano Landscape’s certified building professional, calculates how much water needs to be moved and what pumps are required. Then they bring in an engineer. “We tell him approximately how many tons of stone we’ll be building on the structure, and they’ll specify the structure to accommodate that,” says Cipriano.

The waterfall installations are typically part of a larger landscape construction project. “We set aside space for the waterfall. Bill Moore is our staff landscape architect, and he does a phenomenal job of setting aside the proper amount of space to create the waterfall. Then, I design all of the stonework on-site, so it’s a combination of landscape architecture and in-field designing,” he sys. “I’ll go to the stone yard or the quarry, and I’ll know what I want to do once I see the stone. It’s sort of like arranging plants, you know what textures are going to work together. I try to use the right stones in the right places to get the contrast that will make the waterfall as dramatic as possible.”

While the scale—height, length and number of “levels” of the waterfall—is generally part of the advance design plans, sometimes the final result varies, depending on the design work that takes place in the field. “Once we get the water filled, then we start playing with the way the water comes down. But, we’ve been pretty fortunate, the water generally goes where we want it to,” says Cipriano. In the event the flow of the water needs to be tweaked, the company uses such techniques as adding filler stone, grinding and thermal facing to manipulate the stone. “It’s an art; we’ve got some tremendously talented people on our staff.”

Because of the massive size of the stones used in the construction of large backyard waterfalls, the company frequently uses full-size excavators and wheel loaders and even employs cranes on occasion. Cipriano Landscape Design builds its waterfalls on an engineered foundation to ensure safety and durability.

The more slope a site has, the more dramatic the waterfall can be. “In some instances, we create slope, but we want to watch to be sure we’re creating something that looks natural rather than just a pile of rocks on the end of a pool or pond,” Cipriano says. This means building up a large area around the waterfall to create a feeling of depth and a natural looking environment. The extra area also provides space to install plant material, again adding to the natural look of the finished product. “The goal with waterfalls is to find the balance between the rock and the plant materials, getting the flora and stone together and making it work.”

The combination of stone and plantings helps set Cipriano’s waterfalls apart from others that incorporate only rocks.

In many cases, the stones are pinned or cabled together to ensure safety, and the Cipriano Landscape Design crew uses many different techniques to direct the water in the most dramatic fashion.

“We also try to ensure that all of our waterfalls are unique and exciting. Every waterfall we build is unique; we don’t ever do the same thing twice.” Recent projects have included a 300-square-foot grotto as part of the pool-waterfall and a “volcanic fire pit” that makes it look like lava and fire are part of the waterfall-pool feature.

While backyard waterfalls have been a popular trend among homeowners over the past five-plus years, Cipriano says that in some areas the sagging economy may slow the number of waterfall installations. “We’ve been fortunate in the areas we work in because the customers aren’t usually doing these kinds of jobs with financed money. So, I don’t think we’ve been hit as hard as other parts of the country. In the Sunbelt, for example, about 75 percent of installations were financed, and those projects just aren’t there anymore.”

For landscapers who want to start building waterfalls, Cipriano says that association membership is a good way to learn more. “There’s some great Web sites, as well, and Aquascapes, which supplies a large portion of the industry with water products, frequently holds seminars. You just have to get involved and take the time when doing your research to make sure you can build something safe for people.”

Even more than most landscape construction projects, the combination of water and large rocks on steep slopes necessitates safety, Cipriano reiterates. “All of these projects we build are well engineered. We want to be sure we’re building waterfalls that are safe and that are going to last. From the drawing board to the last stone being set, it takes everyone working together to make these projects successful.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 13 years he has covered hundreds of landscape installation and maintenance projects around the country, with an eye on documenting the tools and techniques used and spreading the word about innovative ideas. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories and cutting-edge installations.